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Time to address mental health

When United Way of Denton County volunteers began their most recent assessment of community health needs, it became clear they would need to tackle mental health separately, said Gary Henderson, president and CEO.

A special assessment and report resulted, and the new report confirmed what the mental health community has long recognized — the gap between community needs and resources is deep and wide.

In the U.S., Texas spends the least per capita on mental health. In 2010, Texas spent less than $39 per capita on mental health services. That figure dropped to $16.25 in 2012. The national average is about $126 per capita.

Denton County, in turn, receives the lowest per capita funding of all Texas counties, with just $11.11 allocated per person in 2012, the United Way found.

State health officials estimate that 13,408 adults in Denton County have severe and persistent mental illness. Denton County MHMR was able to serve 13 percent of them last year. Even fewer children with severe emotional disturbances were served last year. Just 8 percent, or 410 of the estimated 4,976 children who needed help, got it.

Esther Fidler, a Lewisville resident and head of the Denton County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness — which provides support to people with mental illness and their families — said the dearth of resources is costly not only for individuals and their families but also the community.

People need quality care, reliable access to medication and cognitive behavioral treatment to keep their mental illness in check, but the rationing of mental health care makes that impossible, she said.

Poor quality of care also means that many people with mental illness are robbed of their most productive years, keeping them from meaningful work and paying taxes themselves, she said.

In some cases, people who need mental health services end up in the criminal justice system, Fidler said, even though providing the mental health services they need would cost much less.

Initial reaction to the United Way’s report has community leaders asking what’s next, Henderson told us. Advocacy with elected officials and policymakers will be in the mix, and some campaign funds could be directed toward a community impact grant or money for a current provider that has infrastructure and a well-regarded staff, he added.

However, the gap between mental health needs and resources available is so large that the United Way may need to help the community create and develop additional programs, he said.

The shortage of available resources and the appalling lack of funding allocated for mental health in the state and the county have created a nightmare for those who struggle to find care.

We need a new understanding of the county’s mental health needs and resources — a realistic appraisal by concerned and committed community leaders to see what can be done and how best to do it.

Compassion alone demands that we act; although this is a problem that affects us all — if we do not have a friend or family member who is or has been affected, we will end up paying for the lack of care and resources one way or another, and the cost continues to mount.

We encourage all elected officials to join the United Way and other area agencies in developing programs to help narrow the gap between our community’s mental health care needs and available resources.

The problem has been too long ignored — people who struggle with mental health issues deserve the same quality of care and dignity that we afford those who suffer from illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart conditions.